This is a blog for use in both of my HIS 241 and HIS 242 Russian history survey courses at Northern Virginia Community College.

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30 December 2008

Russia's Economic Crisis

Just a quick note.
Read today in the news about the continuing devaluation of the Russian ruble and had read also recently about how the world economic crisis was going to end up affecting Russia. Since the country depends so much on the export of natural resources (oil and gas) for its foreign exchange balance, and with the collapse of prices for those commodities in the past six months as the world passes into a global recession, Russia is not going to be immune from the troubles, despite its huge cash reserves amassed over the past few years.

Russian Orthodox Chrismas

Now that we are in a new century, the celebration is on January 7th. When I was much younger, and my family celebrated the holiday (My grandparents emigrated from Russia in 1912), it was always January 6th; it simply is a matter of different calendars in use by the orthodox and western churches. Anyway, the rule of thumb was that it always snowed on Russian Christmas, but the last few years that has not been the case--it's been more like a tropical day in the Eastern US.

24 August 2008

Pet Shop Boys and Live 8

Just happened to recently see the clip of the Pet Shop Boys singing Go West as part of the Live 8 concerts (July 2005) on a stage set up right on Red Square in Moscow, with St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin Wall in the backdrop. It was truly an amazing sight! What immeidately came to mind was the deteriorating state of relations between Russia and western countries such as the United States and Great Britain, culminating in the current stalemate over the Russian occupation in Georgia. I don't think that another concert could be staged in Moscow such as was done just three years ago. Seems kind of weird how quickly things can change on the international playing field.

12 August 2008

Conflict in the Caucasus

In the news this week, during the so-called Olympic truce," fighting has broken out in the Caucasus between Russia and Georgia over control of South Ossetia, a region whose control has been in dispute for some time now.

08 June 2008

Back to Putin Again

Just finished reading a column by Roy Medvedev entitled "The New Czar." In the short piece, Medvedev, Russian historian and noted author of Let History Judge, reviews approvingly the accomplishments of Putin's eight years as prime minster and terms him the "one Czar in Russia today," and someone who "looks at Peter [the Great] as a role model. The czar analogy must be in vogue in the US and West European press these days, as when I googled the phrase "the new czar," quite a few references to Putin returned. While he may be powerful, and while he may have some authoritarian (although that is not quite the adjective that I was looking for), Putin still operates within the framework of a political democracy (although the exact nature of that democracy may be debated) and of a capitalist economy, unlike any past "czar." Indeed, since most do not even use the "czar" spelling, which has long been considered antiquated, anymore, one wonders about the message being sent by commentators who persist in applying it to Putin's Russia.

01 June 2008

Burnt by the Sun Again

A front page article in the Washington Post yesterday noted that director Nikita Mikhailov, whose 1994 film Burnt by the Sun won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is working on the film's sequel (a two-part Burnt by the Sun II), which will deal with the Russian experience in World War II, on a scale hither-to-unseen in the Russian cinema. To do that he will bring back characters who supposedly died at the end of the first film. Although I did not particularly enjoy the original movie, most of my friends did. Take a moment and read the article, which also notes the role that Mikhailov's father played in the writing of the Russian national anthem.

19 May 2008

Putin as Prime Minister

Vladimir Putin, formerly Russia's president, became Russia's new prime minister on May 8th, just hours after stepping down from his presidential post. He then proceeded to set up his own "presidium" of important government ministers that will directly meet with/report to Putin himself. There will still be a cabinet of ministers that formally are responsible to the president Dmitrii Medvedev. The similarities to the political structure of the Soviet Union in the 1970s are eerie (See, for example, Jerry Hough et al, How the Soviet Union Is Governed).

01 May 2008

Missing Romanov Family Found

There have been a number of recent articles about the fact that recent DNA tests on some bone remains unearthed near Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains of Russia, where the Russian royal family was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 on the orders of Lenin. Anyway back to the story, the DNA tests prove that the remains are those of the tsarevich Aleksei (heir to the throne) and his sister Marie. The remains of the other members of the imperial family (tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, Anastasia, Olga and Tatiana) has all been previously located. They had been reburied in the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral (the family's imperial burial place) in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg in 2000. The identification of these last remains closes one of the last mysteries related to the Romanov family.


Almost missed it, but when I was doing some research on Solzhenitsyn for our One Day in the Life assignment, I realized that he will be ninety years old this year. Further, I saw that there were some recent news items, mostly interviews with his wife, that indicated that he is in rapidly, failing health, but that he is still hard at work writing everyday and overseeing the publication of his collected works in 30 volumes--an undertaking that is proceeding at about 5 volumes per year. So it will take some time to publish everything, and these volumes do not include his unpublished materials. He has lead an almost miraculous life, and I don't really see any intellectual or cultural figure on the Russian landscape that even comes close to what he has accomplished or his importance. (After being expelled from the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn and his family lived in Vermont until his return to Russian in 1994.) Read his August 1914 sometime.

27 April 2008

Russian Movie Series

The National Gallery of Art is presenting a series of Russian films as part of its, Envisioning Russia: Mosfilm Studio, running May 24th through June 29th in the East Building auditorium. Some of these films are rarely available--most are never shown on the big screen in the US--and there are quite a few that I've never seen.

20 April 2008

Russian Culture

It would be great if more of you chose to read one of the great Russian classic novels instead of opting for a movie or doing something not-so-demanding on the web. Some of the Russian literary works of the nineteenth- and early twentieth century can be counted among the world's greatest, and you should read them sometime.

13 April 2008

The Revolutionary Movement

Well, with week 13 of the HIS 241 class, we turn our attention to the revolutionary movement that emerged in Russia in the reign of Aleksandr II. Next week, we will look at cultural developments. One thing to remember is that the "impact" of the revolutionary movement was out of all proportion to its rather tiny size. Really a very small segment of the educated class was involved in oppositional activities, yet that segment was very vocal in publicising their ideas for the future of Russia.

06 April 2008

Aleksandr II

When Aleksandr II ascended the throne of Russia, he had to immediately confront the issue of the Crimean War. In a way, the situation resembled a cruel joke that had been played on Russia. In 1815, Russian armies stood victorious in the triumph over Napoleon, and it was tsar Aleksandr I who had led the march down the Champs Elysees in Paris. (almost) Nicholas II had then ruled Russia for over twenty years, seemingly emphasizing the military might of Russia that entire time and ruling like a commanding general, but then along came this nasty little conflict between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and suddenly the allies that had helped Russia in the struggle with Napoleon were turned against Russia and allied with the Turks. In addition to that little bit of irony, it was the Turks, French and British who invaded Russian territory on the Crimean peninsula, and it was those armies, supplied over a tenuous thousand mile sea voyage, who were doing better than the Russian armies. While the Russians fought bravely, they were terribly under-supplied and forced to fight in dreadful circumstances. So, when Aleksandr became tsar he had to deal with the war situation (he almost immediately began peace negotiations which turned out better than the Russians could have expected), and then he had to figure out what had put Russia into the debacle. His answer was that Russia needed to reform itself if it was to remain a great power.

30 March 2008

Marvelous Decade; the Russian 1840s

Although Russia in the 1840s was ruled by the strictly authoritarian tsar Nicholas I, and although Russian intellectual life had sharp boundaries to it as a result of the tsarist censorship and secret police, there still existed within Russia in the 1840s a lively debate carried out about the nature of Russian society and the its future. That debate took place in private drawing rooms, in coffee houses, in lecture halls at the University of Moscow and even in the published press. There was such a variety of terms in that discussion and such a diversity of areas explored that later historians, and indeed some of the participants themselves, called it a golden age, a marvelous decade. It was a time during which many of the foundations were set for future intellectual and cultural developments in Russia (Need we only mention the names of Belinskii, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Herzen...) One caveat to remember is that although this was truly a ferment, it only involved a very small portion of the country's population as Russia remained, in the 1840s, overwhelmingly rural, overwhelmingly peasant and overwhelmingly illiterate.

24 March 2008

Sparrows Point

Not sure how many of you saw the short notice in the Washington Post's business section the other day about the imminent sale of the Sparrows Point steel plant in Baltimore to the Russian steel company OAO Severstal, which is controlled by the super wealthy Alexei Mordashov (top 100 of Forbe's richest people in the world). The Sparrows plant was once the pride of Bethlehem steel, one of the great American steel firms that went bankrupt in 2001--though it had long before that ceased to be a force in the steel industry. For someone who grew up near the main plant of the "steel," as it was always known, in Bethlehem, PA, and as someone who knew a lot of older men who worked there to support their families through the twentieth century, it has always felt a little unsettling that the management of the company could end up letting that company come to nothing. Strangely, this purchase of the Sparrows Point plant could benefit a lot of people in Baltimore and also turn out to be a very good deal for the US steel-making industry

09 March 2008

Russian Winter

Well, winter is just about over here in Northern Virginia, and while it may have been a snwoy winter in much of the Midwest, we had a mild winter (about 3 degrees above normal) with little snowfall (about 5 inches total!). My impression was that much of European Russia also had a relatively mild winter with little snow through mid-February, but I am not sure of the end.

Russian Current Events Sources Available Online

Just found a very useful list of online Russian newspapers and news sources available in English (and Russian) at

02 March 2008

Russian Presidential Elections

The 2008 Russian presidential elections are underway now, as voters are expected to choose Vladimir Putin's choice of Dmitrii Medvedev to take over as president. It is expected that Putin will move from the presidential office in May when his term is over, to the office of prime minister. Experts expect that he will continue to dominate Russian politics from that post, but no one knows quite what to make of Medvedev who has never held elective office before.

Midterm, Alexander I and Napoleon

You should be taking your midterm exam now, with the essay question dealing with Alexander I and the creation of the Holy Alliance. (Remember that you must take the exam by 26 March to avoid being automatically removed from the course).

27 February 2008

Washington Post's Russia Advertising Section

Well, today is Wednesday, and the Washington Post includes every Wednesday a special, pull-out "Russia: Beyond the Headlines" special advertising supplement produced by Rossiyskaya gazeta. I'm curious if any of you are reading it (or even aware of it) and what your thought might be. Is it news, or what kind of news is it? Why publish a special supplement? Who wants it published? I've got a lot of questions.

24 February 2008

Eating and Drinking Russian Style

There are few truly "Russian" food items found in the major supermarkets in Northern Virginia, but there are at least two specialized stores located in Herndon and McLean that carry Russian (and also East European) food and drink items--I tend to buy a lot of Russian chocolates and some very good Polish beer. (In reality, the Zywiec brewery. is now run by Heinekin. ) Although you can't find a lot of Russian prepared food items at the market, you can easily cook like a Russian as cabbage, beets, fresh vegetables, fish, etc are always around.

18 February 2008

Kosovo and the Russians

A diplomatic crisis of sorts is in the works now as a result of the Declaration of Independence issued by the Republic of Kosovo on the night of February 17th 2008. Both Serbia and Russia are upset, and much of Russia's anger seems directed at the United States (always a convenient target), the UN and NATO. Russia has long seen itself as the protector/liberator of the Slavic populations of the Balkans. Russia was at war with Turkey a number of times, usually for purely Russian goals, but Russian always espoused a rhetoric of liberating the oppressed peoples of the Turkish empire. So that Russian messianic view of manifest destiny in the Balkans dates back to the nineteenth century and the gradual creation of the independent Balkan countries from the Ottoman Empire. The main beneficiary of Russian support over the years has been Serbia, which has set its mission as the rightful unifier of all Balkan peoples, even though many of those peoples do not necessarily want to live with the Serbs. Kosovo aka Montenegro has played an important part of the historical memory of Serbs and and other South Slavs, because Kosovo Field was the site of an important battle in 1389 when the Sultan's army was temporarily stopped by an army under Serb command. That, of course, did not stop the Ottomans from extending their control over most of the Balkans. So, the Serbs view Kosovo as an inherent part of Serbdom, the Russians support the Serbs as an inherent mission of Russiandom, and neither listens to the wishes of the people (Albanians and Serbs) of Kosovo. Remember that World War I (not to mention other ethnic crises that appeared after the breakup of Yugoslavia such as in Bosnia) started over similar kind of Balkan issues.

10 February 2008

Peter the Great

Peter the Great so changed the course of Russian history that it simply is difficult to imagine what would have happened to Russia if he had not assumed the throne--and that assumption of the throne itself was no given--and been able to impose his will on Russia. Russians have long been trying to come to grips with the Petrine legacy, and the duality of that legacy (the desire to be West European yet uniquely Russian at the same time). In this course we have the examples to view of Pushkin and Catherine the Great (via Falconet) trying to understand Peter the Great.

03 February 2008

Muscovite Russia

There are plenty of churches that survive in Russia from the medieval period, including those in the Kremlin and on Red Square.

These are the domes on what is popularly known as St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. If I remember correctly, the number of domes on a Russian Orthodox church is usually an odd number: one dome symbolic of one God; three domes corresponding to the Holy Trinity; five domes representing Jesus of Nazareth and the authors of the four Gospels; seven domes to mean the seven traditional sacraments; thirteen domes for the twelve apostles and Jesus of Nazareth.

27 January 2008

After Kiev

The period of time after the break-up of the Kievan state, as the Russian population generally shifted to the northeast, has often been called, "appanage Russia." This is because of the political de-centralization that characterized the time and because the system of granting out lands -- which then became inheritable--that developed within the royal families to allow the support of younger sons and relatives vaguely resembled the feudal system of Western Europe, especially what occurred in medieval France. In this course, we are not going to really address the question of whether or not Russia ever really experienced a "feudal" period, but let's just say that many of the socio-politico-economic practices extant in Russia through the Middle Ages could be viewed within the broad dimensions of the feudal experience.
See the very nice website of the Троице-Сергиева Лавра (The Holy Trinity Monastery of St. Sergei in Sergiev Posad northeast of Moscow, founded in the fourteenth century).

24 January 2008

Nina Khrushcheva book on Russia

Take a moment to read the interesting commentary by Robert Fulton on Nina Khrushcheva's new book on Vladimir Nabokov, Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics (2008),

20 January 2008

Kiev, Rus' and Russia

This week in the course you will be studying the origins of civilization in "Russia." I use the quote marks because Ukraine, where the first organized political state emerged, is not part of Russia now, and it technically wasn't also for long periods of time before the seventeenth century. But from a cultural, political and social point-of-view there is a direct continuity from the princes of Kiev in the tenth century to Moscow and Kiev today. Hope that makes sense.
Also, I'd like to call your attention to this website (The Serpents Wall), which has some very interesting pictures, on Kievan history and the battle for Kiev that took place during World War II.

07 January 2008

Welcome Spring 2008

Welcome to HIS 241, the History of Russia I. I'm Charlie Evans, your instructor for the course, and this is about the fourth year now that I've had my Russian history course sequence online. This semester we will be trying something new by using a blog to support our experience with Russian history. It should be fun!